A reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah.
The word of the LORD came to me, saying:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you
A reading from the Gospel according to Luke.
But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus pulls a neat trick. He causes a riot and then disappears. The pairing with Jeremiah seems strange at first. In one reading I hear of a God who knows me completely, and in the other, a God I cannot know, a God who mysteriously vanishes.
When I was pregnant I used to copy out that verse from Jeremiah and a similar verse from the Psalms–you knit me in my mother’s womb. I didn’t know how to pray (I still don’t), but I’d gone on a retreat at a monastery and one of the monks had shared the passages with me when I told him I was pregnant. The words comforted me. I remembered how my dad used to tell me that God had counted every hair on my head. At the time this struck me as creepy. I imagined God watching me in the shower, peering through my blinds. But now I imagine whoever wrote these scriptures must have shared my desire to be known and loved to dream of such a God, one who knows us intimately before we even wake to the world. A God who watches us with such concern that he notes the growth of our hair.
Why would such a God remain so elusive?
Whenever I hear someone speak or write of the ways they hear the voice of God, or a moment in which they have felt sure of God’s presence, I press myself to remember if I’ve ever felt that way. I haven’t. Even my closest friend, long before she converted to Catholicism, said she had at least two memories of divine presence that stand out sharply in her memory, even from the time before she believed in God. And yet, though I’ve been religiously inclined my whole life and a Catholic from birth, I have had no encounters with God. Can I love him as I say I do? As I love the Jesus I meet in the Gospels, the God who goes everywhere he shouldn’t and says what shouldn’t be said, who doesn’t fear scandal, who weeps for the death of a friend? When I read, I believe, and I love. But in the reality of my life God remains a ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of my mind, as O’Connor wrote, but lets me continue to walk in the dark.
I know the pious answer to my questions all too well: God tends us through the hands of others. I wrote a book about it. In the last year, especially, I’ve experienced the undeserved love of others that can only be described as grace. In friendship, I have felt what I can only call God moving, a mysterious inner principle working even tragedy toward the good. Too, when I draw my children into my arms, into that circle of fondness and protection, I can imagine myself in the arms of such love, remembering my own mother. But when I try to hold on, the memory slips away as they do, wriggling free as I cling too tightly.
But what of those who say they hear God’s voice and feel God’s presence, not in the voices and bodies of their friends, their children, their memories, but in some other mysterious way? How can it be that some of us experience moments of presence, while others, like me, must love an absence?
Today as I turned over that Mass readings in my head, I despaired, imagining a God who always slips away unseen. I remembered the resurrection story, when Mary Magdalene catches a glimpse of the risen Christ but mistakes him for the gardener. I remembered the Cloud of Unknowing, in which a 14th century mystic wrote that the darkness and cloud will always stand between us and God: “Set yourself to rest in this darkness, as long as you can, always crying out after him whom you love. For if you are to experience him or see him at all, insofar as it is possible here, it must always be in this cloud, and in this darkness.”
I cried out for God but had to settle again for the silence of my bedroom and the inert air of a house barricaded against winter–not even a cloud of unknowing through which I might strain to see what I wish could be seen. There was only the weak light of a January day, the yellow quilt, the cat asleep on my pillow, the mute stares of the saints on the kitschy votive candles I bought at the grocery store.
Let him walk down your hallway
It’s not this quiet, slide down your receiver
Sprint across the wire
Follow my number, slide into my hand
It’s the blaze across my nightgown
It’s the phone’s ring